Goodbye Patience Jonathan, welcome Aisha Buhari By Abimbola Adelakun
The First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, exudes excesses, a certain superfluity that jumps at you whether you study her in still images or actual life. From her outsized personality to her self-aesthetisation, one sees a woman whose effervescence is not self-containing. In the past five years, Mrs. Jonathan has impressed her persona on Nigeria’s cultural imagination and she qualifies as a subject of academic studies on a wide-ranging number of topics.
She is one First Lady Nigerians will not forget in a hurry and for many legitimate reasons too. Her constant bending and bludgeoning of grammar to meet her linguistic needs is only one of them. She will be remembered for her contribution to Nigeria’s repertoire of slang and lingo. Each time we say, ‘Chaaaai!’ or ‘There is God o!’ we (inadvertently) pay cultural homage to the First Lady who, through her raw use of language, her unabashed simplicity and general self-presentation, set a standard through which future First Ladies would be measured.
Her over-the-top solo performance post the Chibok girls’ saga was a self-auditioning in the theatre of bizarreness. She made the most famous Nollywood drama of all time. The viewer, watching her shed unseen tears into a handkerchief, is simultaneously amused and ashamed at the same time. And this is the First Lady?! Somehow, I get the impression that Dame Jonathan herself is not in the least mortified by her melodramatic acting in that video. Let the guild of Nigerian sophisticates who cannot handle her excessiveness go sort themselves out.
This past election season, she went all out and even beyond the bounds of her Self that Nigerians have known. Her relentless abuses of Muhammadu Buhari, and her many gaffes while campaigning (including her sincere non-understanding of what constitutes “corruption”) was like a faucet turned on at full speed; it was perhaps no surprise her cup was soon full.
Nigeria has had a number of First Ladies but none – so far – has matched the Dame. Even Mrs. Turai Yar’Adua – a woman reputed to be so powerful, so influential that she did something no woman had ever done before in the history of Nigeria: she led a cabal of men that kept her husband on puppet strings during his unfortunate illness – was far more self-effacing. Mrs. Jonathan is simply in a class of her own.
Until now, Dame Jonathan’s excesses have been met by cries of indignation by the folk who see her as a commentary on her husband’s perceived weakness. They took the trouble to advise President Goodluck Jonathan to “control” or “restrain” his wife. When she still would not sit still, they reframed the narrative to suggest her husband was not man enough. In Nigeria where the ruler-ruled relationship is often conceived in familial terms (like “father/mother of the nation” or Sai Baba! usually chanted by Buhari’s followers) and the concept of masculinity is often conflated with political power, it was easy to indict the presidential “man-ness” with the First Lady’s immoderateness. If a man cannot “control” the members of his own household, whence lies his claim to authentic manhood? How can he confidently assert he is in charge of an intractable nation like Nigeria?
Dame Jonathan will also be remembered as the first First Lady to take up a job as an absentee civil servant, and for her open partisanship that led to a contest of will between her and the Rivers State Governor, Chibuike Amaechi. On her plunge into the murky waters of politics, it is possible her biographers (not hagiographers) will be conflicted about how to account for this part of her history. Should she be praised for pushing against the borders of limitations of what women in her position can – or should – do? Or should she have remained a domestic appendage, an ornamentation that merely aesthesises the backdrop of her husband’s Presidency? There is probably not going to be an objective, non-emotive answer.
From May 29, Nigerians will welcome a new First Lady – Mrs. Aisha Buhari. I admit I am looking forward to Mrs. Buhari’s time with a huge dollop of expectations. For one, where Mrs. Jonathan has been in everyone’s face, she has been virtually invisible. Her husband contested four times but it was only this last time that she campaigned for him. She almost did not surface until electioneering was well underway. I wrote a piece then questioning her invisibility and for the rest of that Thursday, my mailbox burnt with the fury of Buhari’s horde of supporters who, predictably enough, questioned what I intended to do with her. ‘How many megawatts of electricity will her appearance add to Nigeria?’ they asked with outrage laden with kilowatts of sanctimonious pretensions. Their business of saving Nigeria brooked no questions of her whereabouts; my quest was tantamount to threatening Buhari’s chances. You get the impression they did not even stop to consider the question before expressing dubious rage.
Interestingly, Mrs. Buhari appeared on the campaign trail almost immediately and has remained a constant face in the media. Now she has caught the attention of commentators and journalists who can hardly get over her physical appearance. One can only hope they task themselves to do more than ogle her. More importantly, they should resist the temptation to confine her into the corners of their own minds.
The last point is significant.
Coming after Mrs. Jonathan whose mien wore almost everyone out, Mrs Buhari will be haunted by Mrs. Jonathan’s ghost for a while. People will expect Mrs Buhari to be an anti-thesis of her predecessor. That is quite understandable considering that Mrs Jonathan is a tough act to follow. Mrs. Buhari will be expected to be subdued and sober. Any attempt at defining her own person, or an emergence of character independent of her husband, might be met with self-righteous criticisms by those who assume that the First Ladyship is limited to looking after the President’s domestic affairs so he can focus on the heavy lifting his job requires.
As far as I am concerned, Mrs. Buhari does not need to deny her convictions to satisfy those who will want her to reduce her to the size of their anxieties and biases. She once said she will be her husband’s wife first before being the First Lady. That is fair enough considering she is Mrs. Buhari before being the First Lady but her status after May 29 can also be put to a more significant use beyond her becoming an icon of domesticity. There are multiple advocacy issues she can be involved in and yes, still remain classy.